“The #1 greatest record you probably haven’t already heard is Robert John‘s take on The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Which is immediately kind of a lie. All kinds of people heard it back in the day. It was the #21 biggest selling single of 1972 in the USA, #45 in Canada. Yet somehow or other the world seems to have mostly forgotten about it. It’s also not the greatest song you probably haven’t already heard. It just isn’t. But what is then? I don’t know. I’m just some guy sitting on a porch, making a list. What I do know is The Lion Sleeps Tonight isn’t just any song. Written in 1922 by a man named Solomon Linda, a South African of Zulu origin, finally released almost twenty years later under the title Mbube, a 78-rpm record that was mostly marketed to black audiences in South Africa.
But something clearly happened along the way, not all of it good. In fact the song’s back story includes one of the more notorious copyright crimes of all time. The upside of all that being the myriad cover versions that flooded forth– everybody from Miriam Makeba to Brian Eno to Chet Atkins to Roger Whittaker, Yma Sumac, The Weavers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Sandra Bernhard, the Stylistics, even REM (sort of). But Robert John’s take is the one for me, and not just for nailing the yodeling, but also the doo-wop stylings, and there’s a tuba involved, some pedal steel as well. And so it captures the peace and joy and freedom from worry (if only for one night) that it’s all about. Because the lion is asleep. Which if you think about it, doesn’t really makes sense. If the lion’s asleep, isn’t a raucous party going to wake it up? Not if it’s been drugged. So whatever. It’s a party! We’re alive and we’re singing, and tomorrow and all of its troubles – that’s just a rumour. Tonight the LionSleeps.
“Because what else could ever follow Turn On The News on a playlist but perhaps the greatest cover tune of all time? Husker Du‘s annihilating take on the Byrds‘ seminal 1966 psyche out capturing that pivotal mid-80s moment when the hardcore monster caught a glimpse of itself in the psychedelic mirror, and it paused, saw both tragedy and beauty, and amplified at that. Which is to say, truth. But a truth that’s beyond words, and even music eventually, a truth that can only be conveyed via amplified sonic weaponry and an all too human howling that must leave the words behind lest they be swallowed by whatever hell hounds have been unearthed by all the compounded, concentrated evils of the world. There were a lot of those as the 80s hit their midpoint. But we weren’t too concerned. We had a killer soundtrack.” (Philip Random)
“Eric Burdon took his whiteman-slumming-in-the-blackman’s-world thing all the way to the edge (and beyond) on his second (and last) album with the band known as War, with the epic take on one of the great Rolling Stones songs a definite (and definitive) highlight. It was released in 1970, but I didn’t hear until 1994. A moment I remember all too well. Kurt Cobain had just offed himself, everybody was fumbling around in shock at my friend Steven’s place. Suddenly some guy whose name I forget said something like, ‘F*** you, Cobain. There’s always something to live for. I bet you never even heard this.’ And then he slapped side one of Black Man’s Burdon on the turntable.” (Philip Random)